Mission to the Shan in Burma (Myanmar) – Lessons We can Learn from the Historical Work

This article briefly looks at the entry of Protestant missions into Burma, reviews the growth of missions to the Shan, and shows how the gospel spread in a number of areas of Burma. It introduces some of the key workers who brought the gospel to the Shan, and looks at the long-term results of their labour. It concludes with lessons that can be learned from the early work and provides a brief summary of some recent work among the Shan.

Dr. Shona Goodman comes from the Orkney Islands, Scotland, and is married to Andrew, with whom she has worked with OMF amongst the Shan/Tai people for twenty-three years. The Shan/Tai mainly live in North Thailand, Southwest China, and Myanmar.

Mission to the Shan in Burma (Myanmar) – Lessons We can Learn from the Historical Work

Mission Round Table Vol. 15 No. 3 (Sep-Dec 2020): 14-21



The Shan people are a Tai people group related to the Thai, Lao, Dai, and Zhuang people groups. Like the Burmese, Thai, and Dai, they are a Buddhist people, following Theravada Buddhism. When western missionaries began to enter Burma in the early nineteenth century, the Shan were under Burmese rule. The majority of Shan people lived in Shan principalities within the Shan States of Burma.[1]

This study will briefly look at the entry of Protestant missions into Burma, review the growth of missions to the Shan, and show how the gospel spread in a number of areas of Burma. It will introduce some of the key workers who brought the gospel to the Shan, and look at the long-term results of their labour. Finally, it will look at lessons to be learned from the early work, and provide a brief summary of some recent work among the Shan.

Early years

In the early nineteenth century, Burma was a land of despotic kings, tropical diseases, and few comforts. At that time, William Carey was sharing the gospel in India and William Wilberforce was campaigning to abolish slavery in the British Empire. George the Third was King of Great Britain and Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States. In Asia, King Bodawpaya was King of Burma and Rama I was King of Siam.

The gospel did not take root easily in the minds and hearts of the Buddhist Burmese. The first Protestant missionaries to set foot on Burmese soil arrived in 1807. These Baptist missionaries were sent by William Carey and included his son Felix. It wasn’t long, however, before some left and others died of tropical diseases. Felix Carey was the first to survive long enough to learn the language, but he didn’t see anyone come to faith or plant a church. He returned to India after a tragic accident on the Irrawaddy River caused his whole family to drown.[2]

Adoniram and Ann Judson of the American Baptist Mission were the first missionaries to plant a church—when a Burmese man believed in 1819. After the Judsons came many more missionaries and a small Burmese church slowly began to grow.[3] Shan traders listened to preaching in the market places, and asked questions, so the missionaries began to pray for the Shan. They wrote home to ask for missionaries to come and minister to them. We will now look at the key missionaries who responded to the call and pioneered work in various Shan locations.

Map of Shan States, 1912[4]



Rev. Moses Homan Bixby from New Hampshire, USA responded to the call for Shan workers when he returned to Burma with his second wife Laura.[5] The tropical climate had already cost him the life of his first wife Susan. When they arrived in Rangoon in 1861, the Shan were on their hearts, but King Mindon Min of Burma forbade mission in Upper Burma. They heard of 10,000 Shan people who had migrated to Toungoo, just inside British-ruled Lower Burma.

Toungoo became the first Shan outreach and for many years missionaries to the Shan learned language and culture there. Bixby travelled widely in the mountains around Toungoo sharing the gospel with the Karenni people and itinerant Shan traders every cold season, but never reached the Shan States. Karen evangelists worked with him to plant churches. The Shan were slower to respond than Karen-related tribes, and so the church in Toungoo was a mixture of races who worshipped in Burmese. This was a feature of early Shan outreach. As other peoples responded before the Shan, fewer resources were available to reach out to the Shan.

Rev. Josiah and Mrs. Ellen Cushing, from Massachusetts, USA, arrived in Toungoo in 1867 to minister to the Shan.[6] Cushing had a broad vision to reach the Shan in Upper Burma. He focused on learning the Shan language before Burmese and began to write a dictionary and translate Scripture.[7] After touring the Shan States, with permission from King Mindon Min, Cushing came to the understanding that it was important to reach the Shan using their own language, and that use of Burmese would slow the work, as many Shan spoke no Burmese. He was keen to establish mission stations within the Shan States, and could see opportunities to reach Palaung, Black Karen, and Kachin peoples through the Shan language.[8]

Moses Bixby[9]


Josiah Cushing [10]


The Bixbys left after eight years due to Moses Bixby’s ill health. The Cushings both suffered from ill health at times and had to return to America to recuperate. In 1872, a new missionary couple, Rev. Edwin and Mrs. Jennie Kelley, from Vermont and Boston, brought hope of an outreach to Mongnai in the Shan States. He excelled at Shan language and was ready to move to Mongnai within a year. Edwin Kelley wrote home of the death of his newborn baby and the illness of Jennie, and Josiah Cushing and his son Herbert, all suffering from dengue fever.[11] Tragedy struck during a preaching journey to Mongnai with Cushing and some Shan disciples, when, on 1 January 1873, Kelley drowned while swimming in a lake to retrieve a water fowl he had shot.[12] Jennie Kelley’s second child died in June 1873 shortly after birth and her own health failed after a further two years in Toungoo. She returned to the States and, after some theological and medical training, returned to the Shan mission in Burma in 1880, where she worked until she died in 1889.[13]

Upon returning to Burma, Josiah Cushing began a Shan outreach in Bhamo in 1876 after meeting John Stevenson and Henry Soltau, CIM missionaries who were reaching out to the Chinese immigrants there. The Bhamo field began as a Shan and Kachin mission. Rev. J. A. Freiday took charge of the work at Bhamo after Josiah Cushing left.[14] Rev. Freiday and his wife reached the Shan with the help of a Shan evangelist from Toungoo. He made short trips into the Shan-speaking area of China from 1880 and planted a small church of ten believers through five years’ labour. Later, Dr. and Mrs. W. C. Griggs took over the Bhamo Shan work, and continued to visit the Chinese Shan. When Mrs. Griggs became sick in 1905, they returned to America and there were no Shan-speaking missionaries to replace them. This caused the Shan outreach to become a Burmese outreach from 1905. After that time, few Shan Christians remained in the church.

Mrs. Ellen Cushing continued the work in Toungoo while her husband began the new work in Bhamo. While they were away on furlough, the small church was scattered, so she began again. When Rev. and Mrs. B. J. Mix arrived in Toungoo in 1880, the Cushings moved to Rangoon to focus on translation. Within a year, however, Rev. Mix’s health failed and he died on the journey home. Miss Rockwood moved to Toungoo to run the girl’s school when Mrs. Mix left. She, too, died after contracting typhoid, spending less than a year in Toungoo.[15]

Shan Mission House, Toungoo [16]


The Shan work struggled for several reasons. The Burmese king’s dislike of Christians destroyed early hopes of mission in the Shan States. Dangers of travel in the mountains and the deaths of missionaries in Toungoo before they finished language study greatly slowed progress. Added to this, the low status of most of the early Shan believers and the restlessness of Shan refugees made starting churches difficult.


After the Third Anglo-Burmese war in 1885, the British deposed the Burmese king Thibaw and annexed Upper Burma. This opened opportunities for mission in Upper Burma, although for some years armed conflict prevented mission. The Southern Shan State Alliance fought against the British to place the exiled Limbin prince on the throne and oust the British from Upper Burma. A new law, the “Act for Disturbed Districts and the Shan State,” banned travel in the Shan States until the rebellions were overcome and peace restored.

As more missionaries arrived for the Shan work, Cushing began missions in Hsipaw, Mongnai, and Namkham. In 1890, Dr. and Mrs. M. B. Kirkpatrick opened the mission in Hsipaw with the help of Shan evangelists from Toungoo. Dr. and Mrs. Leeds joined them later the same year to open a hospital and a school. The Shan prince of Hsipaw supported their work, which helped to overcome the wariness of the local people. Kirkpatrick and Leeds made regular trips into the surrounding villages to share the gospel. While in Mandalay for supplies, Kirkpatrick befriended a young English missionary, Charles Lambert, who had been with the CIM in Bhamo. He was then an independent missionary working in Mandalay, but the Anglicans disapproved of his mission as he was not ordained. He applied to join the American Baptists, then went to teach in the school in Hsipaw in April 1895, while the Kirkpatricks returned to the USA for furlough.[17]

Seven weeks into his stay in Hsipaw, bandits attacked and killed Lambert while he was alone. Rev. William and Mrs. Lilla Young arrived five days later, but the local people stayed away from the church and the hospital for months because of fear. Lilla Young developed consumption, so they returned to America in 1898, where she died the following year.

   Mrs. And Dr. Kirkpatrick [18]

   Charles Lambert [19]

By that time, the Hsipaw Shan church had grown to forty-two members, and supported its own pastor. Dr. Leeds worked in the hospital and visited surrounding villages in a ten-mile radius around Hsipaw to share the gospel and hold small clinics. The medical work was instrumental in the growth of the church, as was the support of the Hsipaw Shan prince. When the Leeds family went on furlough, Rev. Wilbur W. and Mrs. Jennie M. Cochrane moved to Hsipaw in 1906. By that year, the church had grown to more than sixty members and had a Shan pastor. The local government ran the hosp

Share this post

Get Involved

Have Questions? Send us an email.

To help you serve better, kindly fill all the fields (required). Your query will be routed to the relevant OMF team.

Contact Form

By clicking Submit, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with the terms in our Privacy Policy.

You’re on the OMF Southern Africa website.
We have a network of centres across the world.
If your country/region is not listed, please select our International website.